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Opening Speech of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Kotzias, at the 3rd Rhodes Conference for Security and Stability (Rhodes, 21 June 2018)
N. KOTZIAS: Good morning. In the words of my friend the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lebanon – who couldn’t come because they are still in the process of forming a government – what has been created here is the ‘Spirit of Rhodes’. These are his words, and I thank him.
I would like to welcome you again to the island of knights, of butterflies, of the Colossus of Rhodes; the island of friendship between southeast Europe and the Arab world.
As I said at the dinner yesterday, on a trip to Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia, I visited the country's new museum, which had thousands of finds from the trade between Greece, the Balkans and the Arab world, which shows that the two sides of the Mediterranean, this world, had over five or six thousand years of trade relations.
And it was there that we had the thought that we need to restore this relationship. In our meeting today and tomorrow, we want to take serious new steps of cooperation. What we will endeavour to do in our first session is to assess the current geostrategic situation.
This afternoon, in the second session, we will set out our proposal for a security and stability structure in the region. We have sent you the text. We have received your observations, and we will discuss it today and in the time to come, and what we aspire to do is, next year, in Rhodes, to decide to create a security and stability structure, as described in our discussions, for the Eastern Mediterranean.
Our third session, tomorrow, which will be attended by the Minister for Digital Policy, Telecommunications and Media, Nikos Pappas, is dedicated to digital cooperation, and with a special part on digital and satellite technology. In our discussion tomorrow, all of us, together -each of us has his own experiences– will enter the future. And tomorrow’s discussion is also part of our positive agenda.
In general, we hope that, through our talks today and tomorrow, we can develop our cooperation in sectors that are of special interest to youth and that are linked to our future.
I must say that yesterday’s meeting of young diplomats, which lasted all day, and during which they discussed with more experienced diplomats and with professors specialised in economic and energy issues, was a success. It was a commitment we made last year: to start our discussion a day earlier, with young diplomats. There were diplomats from 15 countries, with large contributions from all sides.
We should develop further forms of cooperation based on the decision we have taken in the past. I think that the youth festivals in Cyprus and Egypt were a major step towards achieving the goals we have set, as was the Mediterranean film festival that was held in Egypt.
I think we have to persist in this effort, undertaking actions that bind our youth through a common vision for the region, while also developing our cultural activities. Also successful was our joint visit to Lebanon with other Ministers of Foreign Affairs, and I think that visits of this kind – with three or four Ministers of Foreign Affairs visiting regions that are in transition or need our support and solidarity – can and must happen. We can also carry out a visit to a number of Arab countries – I see my friend, Riyad – as a group of people who want to develop this activity.
Where we have fallen relatively behind, despite the positive steps that have been taken, is on cooperation between universities. We have four universities that are collaborating, but we have to expand this into a network of universities throughout the region; a network that deals with special issues: From our region’s transport systems to common historical issues. We have to further develop transport networks between us, and, of course, what we have to look at – and this was part of yesterday’s discussion among the young diplomats – is our energy cooperation.
Today we have the largest number of participants. Good friends of ours, like the Minister of Foreign Affairs of ‘North Macedonia’, Nikola Dimitrov, whom we invited for the first time, were unable to come. In the case of Mr. Dimitrov, because of the ‘battle’ in Parliament over the agreement our two states signed. My friend Shoukri, because Kushner arrived there only last night. And Bassil was unable to come, as we said, because the process of forming a new government in Lebanon is still ongoing. And we have the pleasure of having Emilia with us, because Ekaterina Zakharieva couldn’t come due to their holding the current presidency of the Council of the European Union.
But we do have the pleasure of having here with us Miroslav, the President of the UN General Assembly, which justifies the support all of us gave him. And of course we have the great pleasure of having with us this year, for the first time, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Palestine, our dear friend Riyad al-Maliki. Thank you very much. I hope that all of us, those I miss today and the ministers that are here, will be together next year to shape the final text of the ‘Spirit of Rhodes’.
I always undertake to say a few words about the situation in our region. We want to have a positive agenda. We live in a difficult region. One crisis follows another, but we can say, at least, that the northern side of our cooperation is better than last year. For the first time in its history, Bulgaria held the presidency of the Council of the European Union, successfully, and helped develop our region. The countries of ‘North Macedonia’, Albania, Bulgaria and Greece are deepening our cooperation, and since last year we have launched cooperation between the Balkan countries and the Visegrad countries. And we support – with difficulty at this time, I admit, from other sides – the opening of the negotiations of ‘North Macedonia’ and Albania with the European Union, which will be a great gain for all of us: for these two states to be part of our cooperation and join the Union.
The big problem our region faced this year, again, was the migration and refugee issue. If there is something that links the day-to-day lives of the people of the Eastern Mediterranean and Southeast Europe – not just historically, but also of late – it is the refugee and migration issue.
I am still of the opinion that there is essentially one solution to this issue: stopping the wars, stopping the conflicts, stopping situations like the ones we have in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. If we cannot bring peace and development to these regions, in combination with the need to create and recognise the Palestinian state, this region will never be calm and will continue to send waves of refugees and migrants towards Europe.
And I reiterate: the cost of supporting the development of the Middle East, the cost of ensuring peace in and throughout the region, is very small compared to the cost created by insecurity and turmoil, and by the racism and xenophobia we see growing in Europe.
In Libya, we continue to support the need for national unity and the need to support its government. Over the past year, we were greatly pleased at the steps achieved in Egypt. And I want to underscore this: Egypt is on a course of growth, at a rate that is an example for all of us. I wish we had these growth rates, as we emerge from the crisis and are envious of yours.
In the past year, we talked a great deal about the Cyprus issue. The Cyprus problem is a pivotal issue for the region that all of us comprise. It was discussed in Crans-Montana for 11 or 12 days of constant negotiations, and it remains pending. We want to express our solidarity with the Republic of Cyprus, our hope for a unified island, for a Cyprus that is a flag of friendship with the Arab world, for the elimination of the major sticking point that is the system of so-called guarantees and security, through which the northern portion of Cyprus remains under occupation.
The Palestine-Israel issue remains unresolved. It isn’t on our agenda to discuss conflict zones. Dozens of such forums exist. We want a positive agenda. But part of our positive agenda is the creation, the consolidation, the recognition, the strengthening of a Palestinian state.
I believe that the Palestinian people are a nation with great tradition and culture; one of the best-educated peoples in the region, with a strong will for democracy. It is a nation with many assets and gifts, and the creation and recognition of a Palestinian state would be a win not just for the people of Palestine, but for all of us.
And I say this to my friends in Israel, as well: that they need to understand that the world is changing and changing rapidly. It is in their interest to accept and recognise the two-state solution. Because this will ensure that they live the coming centuries in peace, in calm, with the acceptance of the Arab peoples. Peoples with a great civilization. And the solution of the Palestinian problem, the acceptance of the two-state solution, also mitigates the risks of Islamic fundamentalism that have made their appearance in the Balkans as well. And the integration of ‘North Macedonia’ and Albania into the European Union and the substantial solution of the Palestinian problem are a key to fighting Islamic fundamentalism.
If the need to recognise the two-state solution is not understood by the other side as well, by our friends, developments will not be positive for us as a whole. What the stronger side in the Middle East, Israel, has not done – as a method; I’m not comparing the problems – was done by us in Prespa.
In Prespa, we came to a compromise. We showed that no one can vanquish another, no one can force another into a corner. We cannot live with revanchism and irredentism. We need to accept ‘what is’ and find the rules by which we can live together, and what the Prespa agreement shows – and I hope it is implemented and serves as a shining example for all of our region’s problems – is that here we do not have a conflict between ‘North Macedonians’ and Greeks, but – and this holds true for all conflicts – between forces that want a solution and forces that want inertia; that are served by non-solution and think they can profit from this state of affairs.
The biggest problem in our region is the war in Syria, followed by the other problems I mentioned. It was my view many years ago, as I am now in my 4th year as Greece’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, that no civil war or ‘pseudo-civil’ war – we will see which it is – ends as long as resources don’t run out, and resources are coming from abroad. The history of civil wars has shown that civil wars end when the population gets tired, when money runs out, when material resources run out. But in Syria, the flow never ends, because fighters, military forces, money and arms are flowing into the country. This flow is constant, and from time to time new sources are added.
This makes it more difficult to resolve Syria’s problem and, by extension, aspects of the refugee and migration crisis. We believe that, all together, we must keep these wars – wars that become proxy wars in our region – from happening. We need to ensure the return of refugees, keep others from leaving, secure the property and human rights of those who have left, and block new mutations of the war.
This is a war that started with an internal conflict. Then, in the second phase, terrorist organizations, Daesh and the like, made their appearance. And now we have a geopolitical conflict between the West and other forces and new alliances. This war has to end, because otherwise the refugee and migration crisis will continue to engender nationalism and racism in our region and in Europe.
Moreover -and I am pleased that, after trying for a few years, I managed to convince the European Union that- there needs to be material, moral and financial support for Jordan and Lebanon. We must express our great respect for Jordan and Lebanon, as they have millions of refugees whom they have embraced, while lacking the West’s resources. A West that is showing weaknesses.
We must also support and welcome the work of the UN, including everything from aid for refugees to the support it is providing for the creation of five industrial economic zones in Jordan, so that the refugees can find jobs.
In contrast with these forces for whom I express my respect, like Lebanon and Jordan, like the UN and its organizations, the European Union, I am sad to admit, has shown shortcomings. It didn’t see where the Middle East was heading. It didn’t see the disaster that was beginning in Syria.
It didn’t see that the worst enemy of human rights is war. It didn’t see that, as I always say here in Rhodes, if we are to defend all of these human rights the West talks about, first and foremost we must defend the fundamental right: the right to life. Because without human life there are no human rights. When we have 500,000 dead in Syria, when we have 12 to 14 million refugees who have lost their homes, how can we talk in abstractum about rights? How can we talk about human rights when we do not ensure people’s very existence? And this also holds true in the regions where the Palestinian people live. We have to ensure the survival of these peoples in our region.
The U.S. is now planning a renewed focus on the region, but with difficulties created by the many concerns with regard to the degree to which one can trust that they are a third, neutral player. And Iran and Turkey have been added to these players, in the Iran-Turkey-Russia alliance.
There are a great many forces in the region. There is a great deal of destruction. But our forum, the ‘Spirit of Rhodes’, with the extensive participation we have, could consider mediating. I may be overreaching, but it may be that we, all of us here, are the ones best suited for mediation of the region’s problems. We love the region. We love its people. We are the bond between the Arab world and the West, Southeast Europe. We are the ones who sense and understand what is happening in our region, because we live here.
So let us consider whether and where we can mediate and rebuild our centuries-old networks.
Moreover, we continue to defend the rights of the region’s cultural and religious communities. I underscore: The West often wags its finger at the Arab world with regard to multiculturalism and multi-faith issues. But those of us familiar with history know that in these regions – Iraq, Syria, Babylon, Mesopotamia – different cultures and religions lived together for thousands of years. So this was a region of the world where these different groups lived in peace. Idolaters in the past, Zoroastrians. Then the Jewish communities. The Christians, the Muslims, who defended this multiculturalism and lived together in peace. And they lived this way for 3,000 years. And the Christian communities have been in the region for 2,000 years.
These multicultural and multi-faith communities are what are being destroyed today. And Greece has initiated an effort to defend the multicultural and multi-faith character of our heritage in the Middle East, at the same time defending the role and rights of the Churches in Jerusalem.
And this effort that we launched on our own, with over 400 leading figures at our latest meeting, over 150 religious leaders of the region – and we are proud of this, of the religious leaders – we are now co-organizing with the United Arab Emirates and Austria. And I want to underscore again that when we hold the next meeting of these hundreds of leaders of the different Churches of the region, you, too, are welcome; any state that wants to participate and help shoulder the burden of this major conference and forum – perhaps the biggest there is today. And we also have a special institute, as you know, for the protection of these populations.
One last thought: What do we need to do with this forum? It is wonderful to meet, to see our new and old friends. Rhodes is a beautiful island. You are always welcome with your families, your children. I am pleased that today, when we have with us 10 spouses of heads of delegations, the Municipality gave us a boat so that they can visit ancient sites and eat at fishing villages.
But, as we said last year, we want to give this forum greater impetus; a larger purpose. We want it to become a more vital platform that, on individual issues, meets more frequently; on issues concerning the security and stability of the Eastern Mediterranean. Not of the Middle East, but of the Eastern Mediterranean in combination with the Middle East, the Gulf countries, Southeast Europe, supported by this structure through which we will discuss these matter all through this year. And at this time next year we will conclude on certain characteristics this platform will have.
I have noted 9 such characteristics, and I will close with these. One is that this platform is one of soft power, promoting not differences, not conflicts, but a positive agenda. A platform that gives priority to diplomacy and dialogue.
Second, we want it to be a platform for cooperation on security in our region. And by security I mean all forms, from environmental security to securing people’s lives.
Third, we want to become a platform, a forum for dialogue and diplomacy that examines crises boldly and intervenes in these through diplomacy and with our knowledge of and love and concern for the region, so that we can avert crises, if we can, or facilitate their management.
Fourth, we want to promote together, collectively and in groups, what I call, in Greek, the three Ds, though I imagine this doesn’t translate into English or Arabic that way. Mediation, Arbitration of disputes, and assistance in Negotiations.
Our fifth principle is that we must have “ownership” of the issues that arise in our region. We cannot have everyone else talking about our region, everyone else deciding about our region, while we simply pay, because, as I often say, one set of people began the bombardments in Syria and Libya, others are receiving the refugees, and still others are having their day-to-day lives in the Middle East made difficult.
We are local and regional players. We know and we can. We just need to believe that we, as a group of states, or as individual states, can take initiatives. We can address the powerful players of this world and explain to them how we see peace and security, human rights and human lives in the region.
Sixth, we are a space of dialogue and diplomacy based on the traditions we have, the culture we have, the relations we have in our region. We of Southeast Europe are- let’s say Greece- is a country that has always had friendly relations with the Arab world. We never clashed with it. We always loved and took care of, and always received love and understanding from, the Arab world, and this holds true for all of Southeast Europe. We have a culture that is thousands of years old. Our peoples, regardless of what religion we had, have been here for 5,000, 6,000 or 8,000 years. We have another outlook on history. Another sense of history.
We may sometimes be slow, we may sometimes make mistakes because we are slow to act, but we won’t make mistakes out of haste or sloppiness. Over these thousands of years, we have had thousands of wars in our region, and we know that these wars did not solve our problems. That we are at a point where we no longer need wars.
Seventh, we are a forum for dialogue and diplomacy that is based on international law and international agreements. We provoke no country here. No state here provokes third states. And we want to defend our rights based on the rights of our people, on the international agreements that exist, on international law.
We do not invoke international law to justify acts and outlooks of violence. As a rule, we are on the receiving end of such violence. So we are against revisionism, ‘imperialists’, or those who would establish a ‘caliphate’; we are against irredentism and revisionism.
Our eighth principle is that, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean, maritime security is of great importance. We are peoples who developed our culture and history at sea. We know that 33% of global trade passes through the seas of our region. 40% of the energy consumed globally transits our seas. The protection of these seas, peace on these seas, combating of piracy – all of this comes under the heading ‘Security of the Seas’.
Ninth, and on a positive note as I began, I want to say that we have a positive agenda. We have cooperation networks. Let us offer the positive agenda to third parties. Let us deepen it and make it even better.
In closing, I would like to thank three categories of people. First, I want to thank the interpreters. Without the interpreters, we would not be able to communicate.
Second, I would like to thank – and I consider this a success of our forum – those third countries, not from our region, who came as observers. And I would like to thank the governments that asked to participate as observers and to draw from our words, from our thoughts, experiences for other regions like ours.
One of these observers is Indonesia: a large archipelago and the most populous Muslim state in the modern world. There is Vietnam, which is to me the most heroic modern state in the history of humanity. A country that has overcome four major and powerful invaders and rebuilt itself, boarding the train of new technologies and living in a region that is very similar to the Eastern Mediterranean in terms of international law, EEZs and things that it is striving for.
And there are our friends the Colombians, who want to gain this experience because, as you know, Central America and the northern portion of South America also have issues of maritime security and so on.
And finally – and I mention this last because it is a great honour for me – I would like to express special thanks to the Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council for being here. It is a great honour for me and for all of us. You are a great institution, with great work, and we learn with you as we look on at what you are doing.
Also here is the deputy Secretary General of the League of Arab States, whom I want to thank because the Arab League is the soul of the Arab peoples. It is there that the Arab world articulates its opinion of and views on the world, on Europe, on Eastern Europe, of which we are a part – the part across from the Arab world. I consider the presence of the Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the deputy Secretary General of the Arab League to be a great honour and noble gesture. And I think it is a great success that we have drawn the interest of countries so distant from Southeast Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Arab world.
I hope that we are all wiser, more mature and more knowledgeable after the two days of our discussions; that we talk about how we see our region, express positive thoughts and not restrict ourselves to our justifiable complaints; that we see, tomorrow afternoon, how we can create this forum ‘in the long term’, not just through more general forms of cooperation, but also through specific collaboration on digital and satellite technologies. When I was in Saudi Arabia, I visited the New Technology Park and was impressed by the knowledge of and work on satellite technology that I saw there.
With these words, I welcome you. I thank our Ministry’s Protocol Department. I thank our Ambassadors and the Special Committee that coordinates our Ministry’s initiatives, with Amb. Petros Panagiotopoulos, who came to us from Mexico and is a little like a Mexican ... I thank everyone who contributed to the preparation of this meeting.
I thank the local authorities of Rhodes, who will be hosting us this evening, who are hosting the spouses of the heads of delegations. I hope we all have a good time.
Thank you very much.